Sarah Palin - Attractive, earnest - and clearly out of her league?

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WHEN Sarah Palin was introduced as her party's vice-presidential candidate at the Republican National Convention, it was as if a sudden ray of sunshine had appeared to brighten John McCain's path to the White House.

The Alaska governor's down-to-earth credentials as a mother of four and the fighting rhetoric of her acceptance speech scored early points with voters.

But barely four weeks later, the inexperienced Ms Palin – a self-proclaimed pitbull with lipstick – is finding the political landscape just as chilly as the Arctic winters she knows so well. Well-publicised gaffes have cost her valuable ground as she faces the potential minefield of tomorrow night's vice-presidential debate with Democratic opposite number Joe Biden.

"The buzz on Sarah Palin has gone all bad," said George Stephanopoulos, formerly president Bill Clinton's communications director and now a respected senior political commentator for ABC News.

"When you become a punchline in politics, it is one of the worst things that can happen," he added, referring to the way her foreign policy naivety was lampooned on the Saturday Night Live sketch show.

Ms Palin's perceived fumblings, including a contradiction of Mr McCain, are so grave that a rapid-response team of senior Republican advisers was imposed on her to give her intensive cramming on issues certain to arise in tomorrow's debate in St Louis, Missouri, such as the economy and Iraq.

Her stumbling, lightweight performance on CBS News in only her third national interview since she accepted the nomination also set alarm bells ringing at Republican headquarters.

Pressed by presenter Katie Couric on her foreign policy credentials, Ms Palin explained that Alaska's "next-door neighbours are foreign countries" and that when Russian planes invaded US airspace, they came to Alaska. That prompted calls from conservative commentators for her to stand aside for a more experienced candidate.

Ms Palin is "attractive, earnest, confident … (and] clearly out of her league," wrote Kathleen Parker in the National Review. Others, such as foreign affairs analyst Fareed Zakaria, see her as "dangerously ignorant and unprepared". Perhaps her biggest slip came at the weekend when she told a voter in Philadelphia she would support sending US troops uninvited into Pakistan.

"If that's what we have to do stop terrorists coming any further in, absolutely, we should," she said in an exchange caught on TV cameras. Two days previously, in the first presidential debate, Mr McCain mocked Democratic candidate Barack Obama for saying the same thing.

Mr McCain dismissed the episode as "gotcha journalism" against Ms Palin, but as Ms Couric pointed out, Ms Palin was not speaking to a reporter but to a voter with every right to ask pertinent questions.

Many Republicans see Ms Palin as an asset whose natural talents as a communicator are being stifled by campaign staff forced on her by Mr McCain.

Tomorrow's meeting with Mr Biden gives Ms Palin the opportunity to shake off the criticism and re-present herself as a worthy candidate, said Professor Allan Louden, an expert in presidential debates at North Carolina's Wake Forest University.

But he added: "Any slip will be used against her."

Rival has made fair share of gaffes too

DEMOCRATIC candidate Joe Biden made gaffes of his own during preparations for tomorrow's vice-presidential debate in St Louis.

In claiming that lessons from the 1929 Great Depression could help offer a solution to the economic crisis facing the US, Barack Obama's running mate said: "When the stock market crashed, Franklin D Roosevelt got on the television and didn't just talk about the, you know, the princes of greed. He said, 'Look, here's what happened'."

Unfortunately for Mr Biden, Herbert Hoover was president at the time. And television broadcasts in the US did not begin for another seven years.

Then earlier this month, Mr Biden was caught on camera asking a wheelchair-bound politician to stand up to receive recognition from the crowd at a rally in Missouri.

But his staff are confident of a strong performance during the debate against Ms Palin, whose approval rating among women has fallen from 65 per cent to 43 per cent in less than two weeks.